What Can We Ask about Sexual Assault and Greek Life

Why Rampant Sexual Assault in Greek Life Should Not Surprise Us

Within my first week of college at American University, I was told that Epsilon Iota (EI) was notorious for using date rape drugs at their parties. Sure enough, three weeks in, I met someone who had attended an EI party and realized during the night that two of his friends, one male and one female, had been drugged and were completely incapacitated. Luckily, he was able to take them home. From that moment on I wouldn’t touch an EI brother with a ten-foot pole, and never attended an EI party.

Frats3Yet EI continued to openly recruit, even pick up students on campus to drive them to their infamous parties. Brothers proudly flaunted their letters on campus, with no fear of repercussions for representing an organization that was officially classified by the university as a gang.

It wasn’t until scandal erupted that my university took any action to address the situation. Horrific emails were leaked that revealed the prevalence of rape culture within the fraternity. One brother identified a specific girl by name, saying she deserved to be “raped in the woods.” There was student outrage, public outrage, and a strong statement of condemnation from the university.

Was I horrified? Of course. Was I surprised? Not at all.

 Fraternity Houses and Rape

Studies show that fraternity brothers commit a disproportionate number of sexual assaults on college campuses, and women in sororities make up a disproportionate amount of the victims. According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, male students who joined fraternities were 300% more likely to commit rape, while women in sororities were 74% more likely to be victims of rape.

Why is this the case?

FratHouse1The answer is the result of two interplaying factors: strict university alcohol policies that force students to seek off-campus venues for drinking, and fraternities having complete control over the social environment where students consume alcohol.

We learned from Prohibition that when you ban a widely used substance, the unintended consequence is organized crime. The majority of any given college population is under the legal drinking age, so students find other means to obtain it and often put themselves at risk in the process. This is especially true for dry campuses, because students are forced to leave campus to engage in illegal activity, without the oversight and protection of campus police and other safety services.

When college students attend fraternity parties, fraternity brothers control every aspect of the students’ social experience from beginning to end. The experience they create is gendered and stacked in their favor. One blogger, and proud sorority girl, admits that the fraternity monopoly on parties has dangerous consequences for women. “You are in his house and have to listen to what he says,” she explains with regards to frat brothers, “This gives them a sense of entitlement, which can be dangerous.”

On a typical weekend, students gather in a central location on, or near, campus where fraternity brothers shuttle people to their parties. It’s a themed night, perhaps “Pimps and Hos,” so women dress in provocative clothing and hope to get noticed by the frat brothers in charge of the rides to the party.

Fraternities2Friends of the brothers and groups of the most attractive or most scantily clad women get rides first. Groups of friends with too many men struggle to get in. To improve their male to female ratio to the satisfaction of the fraternity brothers, these groups may have to split up or try convincing more girls to join their group.

Once at the party, the frat brothers are in charge of alcohol distribution. They might offer higher-quality alcohol to women they intend to pursue, and pressure them and their friends to take shots and binge drink. The way home at the end of the night is uncertain. If the frat doesn’t offer rides back, they may have to rely on a frat brother to take them home. Any woman in this situation, intoxicated and separated from her friend group, would be vulnerable.

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em…and Accept the Risk

Fraternities are taking advantage of a punishingly high drinking age. Their unique position as a powerful, well-funded social network also increases the social cost of not participating. The idea that college women can easily avoid the perils of frat parties by choosing not to attend them assumes that viable alternatives exist.

Imagine you’re a freshman in college. You want to make new friends and celebrate your newly found independence. When faced with the decision to go to a frat party with all of your friends and other freshmen like you, or staying in the nearly empty dorms to avoid the risk, the decision is clear: you either have a social life or you don’t. One study of college freshmen, conducted by three professors at Indiana University, observed that students “either integrated themselves into partying or found themselves alone in their rooms, microwaving frozen dinners and watching television.”

I can personally relate to this dilemma. I detested frat parties as a freshman, and on countless weekends tried to convince my friends to consider alternative plans. The truth was, the alternatives weren’t great, and weren’t likely to lead to meeting new people or eligible men. So time and time again, I reluctantly went along with them because it was better than staying in the dorms by myself. A few times I did choose to stay back, and I felt like I was being punished. The moment I got an apartment off campus, I had my own venue where I could party outside of Greek life.

Why Don’t Sororities Throw Parties?

Protest2Unlike fraternities, sororities are explicitly prohibited by their national governing body from serving alcohol at events, effectively preventing them from throwing parties. They host social events, but these are typically exclusive to members of the sorority or other Greek organizations. Challenging this status quo could go a long way in decreasing the incidences of rape on college campuses.

Writing for Time, sociology professor Michael Kimmel calls for universities to let sororities “run the show” when it comes to parties. As Kimmel points out, when a woman get so drunk at a frat party that she can barely stand, a predator will likely take her upstairs. He is much less likely to be successful if he tries this at a sorority house.

Dr. John Foubert, an expert in sexual assault prevention, was behind a 2007 study that became the third to confirm that frat brothers are three times more likely to rape. Foubert says his study “confirmed that fraternities provide the culture of male peer support for violence against women.”

Students and universities should actively encourage sororities to throw parties like fraternities do. If universities are willing to be complicit in Greek organizations’ monopoly on venues for alcohol consumption, why not give students the option of consuming alcohol in an environment controlled by females?

Honest Conversations About Greek Life

The fact that the words “rape culture” have made it to mainstream media is a huge step in the direction of addressing the issue. The increased focus on educating college men about sexual consent has been another positive step. It teaches them not to be bystanders and empowers them to be part of the solution. It sends a message to women that being a victim of rape is not simply a consequence of their failure to take the right precautions.

But this is not enough.

CampusProtestLimiting the solution to educating individual students ignores the core institutional factors contributing to this problem. The fact remains that men in Greek institutions are the most frequent perpetrators of rape, and women in sororities the most frequent victims. The norms of college partying and university endorsement of Greek activities have created an environment set up to make college women vulnerable. Any attempt to reduce sexual assault and rape from college campuses must acknowledge and directly address these institutional problems.

We must also change the way we think and talk about Greek life. These are institutions that universities have granted special status as the lifeblood of social activity for students, especially freshmen. This is their primary function, and universities implicitly condone the unsafe environment of frat parties by permitting them to remain entirely unregulated.

We don’t necessarily need to ban Greek life. However, we do need to start asking questions about the social environment on college campuses. Why aren’t sororities allowed to host parties? Is strict policing of drinking on campus actually keeping students safe? And finally, when will we stop seeing fraternities as a traditional part of the college social experience, and start seeing them as the problem?


Sarah Levin (American University)

AskingQuestion1Sarah is a secular activist living in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a degree in International Studies from American University (AU), where she was a student leader of the AU Humanist Community. Passionate about separation of church and state and grassroots political activism, she dedicates her spare time to supporting local student groups as the Secular Student Alliance’s Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Washington area. You can follow her on Twitter @1line1amendment.  

4 responses to “What Can We Ask about Sexual Assault and Greek Life

  1. Sarah, I enjoyed reading this post. You’re calmer and more articulate than most people tend to be about this issue, which is refreshing 🙂


    Your argument that partying is needed to sustain a social life is demonstrably untrue. I know plenty of people (myself included) who prefer small get-togethers over huge ragers. And even if you are left alone in your room, what’s the big deal? Read a book. Paint a picture. Type out a lengthy comment at 12:52am to a fellow Applied Sentience writer. Do something!

    Also, early on in the piece you say “students are forced to leave campus to engage in illegal activity, without the oversight and protection of campus police and other safety services”, but a little later you talk about freshman celebrating their newfound freedom. Well, which is it? Are they free, or are they under the watchful eye of campus police? Or more to the point, which would you prefer? I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had there.

    Finally, if you’re looking for some alternative feminist viewpoints to this whole issue, I really like Camille Paglia. If you haven’t heard of her, here’s a short interview the WSJ did with her a while back.

    Looking forward to your next piece!


  2. Best article I’ve ever seen on rape culture, hands down. I honestly considered it all to be a conspiracy theory, but this really opened my eyes. Thank you!


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